Town is Dead review: Kitchen-sink realism meets a spry chamber opera

Phillip McMahon's new collaborative work is `a play within music' that looks to celebrate the unsung heroes among us all

Barbara Brennan (Ellen) and Conall Keating (Will) in Town is Dead by Phillip McMahon and Raymond Scannell. Photograph:  Ros Kavanagh

Barbara Brennan (Ellen) and Conall Keating (Will) in Town is Dead by Phillip McMahon and Raymond Scannell. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh



Surrounded by cardboard packing boxes and beset by visitors both familiar and unknown, Ellen’s place in this world seems neither here nor there. Having spent her life buffeted between Ireland and England, and now, in her late sixties, being shunted from her inner-city Georgian flat to live in her sister’s boxroom, Ellen has become grimly accustomed to a life in limbo.

When we first see her, in the indomitable shape of Barbara Brennan, she is at once sour and spirited, railing against the plans of others. But even her words seem slightly beyond her control; part spoken, part sung, slightly croaked and hastened along by someone else’s pace.

Described as “a play within music”, writer/director Phillip McMahon’s new collaboration with composer Raymond Scannell responds to Ellen’s predicament with a sympathetically ambiguous form. Here kitchen-sink realism meets a spry chamber opera, with neither element quite in the driving seat. (McMahon’s printed text is more agnostic, asking to be performed “within or without music”.)

This suggests that, for all the delicate arrangements of Scannell’s score, it is more optional than integral, where a balanced trio of piano, harp and clarinet create brief shuffles or shimmering glissandos, like a shy partner nudging into the conversation.

Without such accompaniment, though, it’s hard to imagine how this short piece could function. “It’s all past tense,” says Ellen dismissively at one point, and indeed its mode is one of perpetual exposition. She is allied by characters who are all, at some level, bereaved, haunted and grieving, but whose main purpose is to prompt and listen.

With a becoming wariness, Brennan holds the stage throughout with Conall Keating’s Will, a young man who chimes in with her worried refrains (“Our memories will be here and no one will know”), or springs up to mirror the movements of her visitors in Megan Kennedy’s sporadic choreography. Fia Houston-Hamilton’s sweet-natured English caller, Rachel, has tracked down Ellen, estranged wife to her deceased father, looking for answers, while Kate Gilmore’s voluble neighbour Katarina, pregnant and disowned, simply ushers the conversation along.

McMahon is sensitively aware to how poverty and unforgiving cultures strip the future of promise. Obliterated by violence and alcohol, Ellen and her husband punched each other “because holding didn’t come natural”. One brief respite, her loving relationship with a gay black man, Gorgeous George, arrives with the sweetest melody and, inevitably, the most crushing consequence. In a Dublin that is no longer theirs, her son is brutalised for being English. That is the play’s quiet tragedy, mapping the lives of people who – economically, historically, politically or sexually – are never allowed to feel at home.

This fatalism comes to resemble an unceasing catalogue of woes, however, which is why (I suspect) the play could never be without music. Scannell’s compositions eschew the sullen, just as the spectral interaction between Paul O’Mahony’s translucent set and Sarah Jane Shiels’s shifting lights hints at something otherworldly; together they compel the characters to speak while holding the play back from bathos. That, you suspect, is the quality McMahon most admires in Ellen, worldly, resilient, all but shorn of illusions. “None of us were good,” she says. “Getting through it is all we were doing.”

The play aches for such unnoticed stoicism, the heroes that would otherwise go unsung.

Runs until July 9th